Memory, identity and becoming

Dr Julia Shaw is a psychological scientist specialising in memory and criminal psychology. In her book ‘The Memory Illusion’ she tells the story of a memorable lecture by one of her favourite professors at university. In the lecture, the professor takes a large sheet of paper and begins to fold it in half, and in half again. As he folds, he explains…

This sheet of paper represents reality. When I fold it in half, the smaller sheet represents what we perceive of this reality. Another fold, and we have the fraction of what we perceive that we actually pay attention to. Another fold: these are the observations we create memories from. And a final fold – now my paper is a small proportion of what it was – which reveals what we might hope to recall at some later date.

This analogy seeks to illustrate how limited our memories are as a reflection of what we actually experience. Dr Shaw goes on to show how many of these memories are false, and can be easily manipulated and manufactured.

The story reminds me that we each hold in mind a tiny, biased version of the universe. Who we are is a result of what we know, which is a function of what we have experienced, perceive, pay attention to, commit to memory, and can later recall. Within each of us exists a partial, compromised, view of reality. This is to what we refer when we say “I”.

To claim that we are no more than our memories is not a comfortable belief, but the evidence points that way. Let’s put aside philosophical arguments for the soul (personally, I don’t buy it), and deal with the more empirically reachable matter of personality. Many psychologists historically claimed that the personality sits separate from memory; that if you remove all memories there remains a disposition which we might describe as a personality. However, the sad reality of illnesses like Alzheimer’s suggest otherwise – as memory fades, so does the essence of who you are. If true, this rather downbeat assessment might actually give us cause for hope. Rather than personality being fixed and largely unchangeable, as psychologists have suggested, it may actually be open to evolve… we can become a better person!

If who we are is dependent on what we know, I have a chance to become a better version of myself. I find this position far more uplifting than the idea of an unchangeable ‘me’ that is constant throughout my life and into the next.

As the basis for an educational philosophy, placing what we know so centrally to our being helps us find a meaningful purpose to our endeavours. Education can change us in profound ways. It has the potential to be transformative and life affirming. Schooling is a process of becoming, and the quest for knowledge is the opposite of reductionist – it is holistic and developmental.

Attending to the world

When we attend to the world, we bring to it who we are (which, as I have argued, is a composite of what we know).

How much of who we are is brought to bear depends on the task at hand. If I am teaching, I bring many aspects of ‘me’ to the endeavour. However, if I am plumbing a sink, the essence of who I am is somewhat less critical.

The fields in which we operate personally and professionally are ‘domains’ – clusters of activity. A domain is an artificial construct, but a useful one. It is helpful to categorise ‘plumbing’ as a domain of practice because we need a way of talking about this particular set of activities. We find it expedient to be able to talk about what plumbers do, who they are, and how one might become a plumber. The typical tasks undertaken by a plumber have similarities (physical, procedural and intellectual) and are employed towards common purposes (the maintenance of a functional plumbing system).

How do we define a particular domain? We might try to draw an imaginary ring around the domain. How easy is it then to place items inside or outside this ring?

For plumbing, the boundaries are quite well defined. Fitting a ballcock – inside the ring. Tiling a roof – outside.

Driving a van? Well this is something many plumbers will do as part of their daily working lives, but does it fall within the domain of plumbing? Probably not. We can recognise that driving a van is in no way the preserve of the plumber, and it is not central to the pursuit of plumbing. We might reasonably conclude that driving a van is not a domain-specific plumbing skill. This doesn’t mean that van-driving is not important to many plumbers, but we would not include it in the curriculum for our plumbing qualification.

What about the personality the plumber brings to his work? Clearly if the plumber is rude, confrontational and doesn’t care about doing a good job, s/he won’t get many repeat customers. If we were training this individual we might work with them on controlling the less helpful aspects of their personality, but we wouldn’t put ‘not being an arse’ on the plumbing curriculum.

Can we do the same for teaching? It proves to be more difficult. Why?

The boundaries of the domain of ‘teaching’ are less clear; more permeable; looser. The domain itself is complex. We bring more of who we are to this domain i.e. we draw upon a broad range of knowledge and experience. What we know, in very general terms, will affect how we approach the task. In other words, who we are will affect how we do the job. These features of the domain lead to a great deal of confusion when we start to discuss what good teaching looks like, and how we go about getting better at it.

To tease out where to draw the ring around the domain of teaching, let’s take the example of autism awareness. As a layman, I may have a general knowledge of autism. This knowledge may be useful in many aspects of my life: for example, if I have an autistic friend, relative or colleague. This knowledge will undoubtedly be useful to me as a teacher, but I would not place it inside the ring (as part of the domain of knowledge I specifically need to be an effective teacher). However, knowledge of how autism may affect cognition and learning would sensibly be placed inside the ring. This knowledge may also be useful in other domains – it is not exclusive in its usefulness to teachers – but we can reasonably argue that it serves a specific and important purpose to the teacher.

I may also hold knowledge of the particular needs of a specific autistic child who I teach. This is contextual knowledge, and it is highly valuable. However, this knowledge is different to domain-specific knowledge because it is useful to me in my particular circumstance, but will have little, if any, utility beyond my context (other than helping me form a mental model of the diversity of people with autism as I come across more with the condition).

Another example: would you place your ability to explain complex ideas inside or outside the ring which surrounds the domain we call teaching?

I may be particularly articulate when I speak; able to explain quite difficult ideas in accessible ways. This is a useful quality for a teacher to possess, but I am not going to place it within the ring. I may possess this ability because I am quite knowledgeable on a range of topics, work hard to understand ideas, and have practised expressing these to others (perhaps outside of a school context). However, having numerous examples of doing something well does not necessarily equip me to walk into a classroom and help students of a particular age and disposition understand the specific concept I am required to teach. Being able to explain gravity in a way which is understandable to an average-ability Year 10 student is a domain-specific skill, at least for a science teacher. To do this, I need to know a great deal about what these students may already know, what they are likely to find difficult, what possible misconceptions they will form, how to model and articulate this concept well, and what order of progression I may use to build understanding (e.g. Newton before Einstein). These features are hallmarks of expertise; being generally good at explaining stuff isn’t.

In this last example, we can see that the ‘domain’ may be defined as ‘teaching’ or as ‘science teaching’. Working on the general skill of ‘explaining clearly’ may be a legitimate activity for teachers in developing their practice, but we would need to pay close attention to what is being explained (which will vary by subject discipline) in order to make real progress in our practice. Getting closer to the specifics of what we are required to do is the key to developing professional practice; failing to delve deeper than the general will result in superficial expertise.

As I said before, the definition of a domain is arbitrary and movable. However, it is useful in helping to decide what falls within the realm of professional practice – what knowledge is particular and important for the practitioner.

Expertise in the domain

There are many misconceptions which arise when one tries to make the case for domain-specific knowledge. One of these is that you are somehow saying that nothing beyond the domain is important. As I have argued above, who we are determines how we attend to the world – including how we approach our professional practice as teachers – and this is a function of what we know. Therefore, learning about anything has the potential to affect our teaching practice. For me, being a parent has changed how I teach, bringing insights into how I might be perceived, how I interpret children’s behaviour, and how much grief I might cause at home if I set a poor piece of homework. However, this knowledge must be translated into our professional practice – honed within the domain. Knowledge is not enough, whether it is domain-general, borrowed from another domain, or exclusive to the domain in question. It is specifically how we attend to our practice that is important so that we develop fluid, flexible teaching expertise. Expertise draws on who we are, what we generally know, and what we specifically know, and sculpts from this a mastery of our domain. This expertise is rooted in the soil of the domain, even if it is grown with the sun and rain which falls across the entire landscape of our being.

Individually, we can work at becoming a better person, extend our knowledge across a wide field of disciplines, or have life changing experiences. These will all change us, therefore potentially alter how we go about the task of teaching. However, they are not the proper focus for professional development. The development of domain-specific expertise should be our primary goal because the practices within the domain are core, particular, powerful and open to change. To be clear, we should work on the things which are:

  • Core: expert practices required by all, or most, people practicing in the domain.
  • Particular: not necessarily exclusive to the domain, but a distinguishing feature of it.
  • Powerful: known to make a significant difference to outcomes in relation to the purpose of the domain.
  • Changeable: open to being developed in ways which enhance professional practice.

To return to our plumber, being more polite or becoming a better driver is desirable, but most importantly we want him/her to be an expert plumber – to work on the things within the domain. Similarly, we want our teachers to develop domain-specific expertise, be it assessment, behaviour management, the curriculum, or pedagogical approaches. We bring who we are to the job, but it is how we attend to the task of teaching which should dominate our thinking and development.

The expert leader

Whilst we find it easy to define the domain of expertise required for the plumber (and distinguish this from the more general skills, dispositions and traits each individual plumber may possess), we find it harder to do so for the teacher (as they necessarily bring more of ‘themselves’ to the role). Yet it seems almost impossible for many to accept that the domain of school leadership expertise is distinct, definable and should be the focus of development for school leaders. So much attention, for many years, has been paid to everything but the domain-specific expertise school leaders require. This is true of the leadership industry in general, which is pre-occupied with who we are more than what specific expertise we need: our personality, values, belief systems, dominant traits, generic skills and outlook on life. To do the same for teachers or plumbers would appear instantly ludicrous, but any suggestion that we should pay more attention to the specific things school leaders should know is met with fierce opposition and offence by some.

Of course, to ask for a little more thought, research and attention on the domain of school leadership does not mean that what a leader personally brings to the task is irrelevant, or that there is nothing to learn outside of the domain of education. It is also not an attempt to polarise debate or turn our back on the sound empirical findings from decades of inquiry into leadership (although the empirical basis is very thin, given the dollars ploughed into the leadership industry over the years). To simply ask ‘How do we define this domain?’ and ‘How might we develop expertise in school leadership in particular?’ really upsets some people. We should pause to consider why.

The idea of domain-specific expertise for school leaders appears to disrupt firmly held beliefs. The more open-minded commentators seek to reconcile this conflict and find a compromise position, which is more welcome than outright hostility. However, these compromise attempts often display a misunderstanding of the basic tenet, or create ugly hybrid, middle-ground models. So to finish this blog, I would like to address a few misconceptions head on:

Are you saying that generic skills aren’t important?

No. Everything we bring to bear on a domain of practice is important. But the development of generic skills is not central to teaching or school leadership, and they have been over-valued historically.

Generic skills and domain-specific skills are two ends of a spectrum – opposites – and there is a ‘sweet spot’ somewhere in the middle.

No they aren’t and no there isn’t. To put these in opposition is a misunderstanding of the argument. You may bring general knowledge, dispositions, beliefs or skills in from outside a domain, but they must be applied, synthesised and honed within the domain to be of particular use – there is a process of assimilation so that domain-specific expertise emerges. DS expertise is holistic – you cannot bolt on or transplant generic competencies.

Development programmes for school leaders should include an equal balance of DS and generic skills.

No. There is nothing wrong with personal development whereby someone seeks to change who they are and their general capabilities, but professional development programmes for school leaders should predominantly focus on developing expertise in the domain.

Are you saying that there is nothing to be learnt by looking beyond schools/education?

No. There is so much to learn. Everything we know shapes who we are, and therefore what we do. However, to become really good at something which is difficult and specific we need a disciplined approach to developing expertise in that domain.

We bring our full selves to the tasks of teaching and leadership. How could we do anything else? But if we want to develop expertise, we must have a clear conception of the domain of practice and focus our efforts therein.

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